Protecting the Sacred Groves of Meghalaya

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There are an estimated 100,000 sacred forests in India, offering rich biodiversity, spiritual value, and economic opportunities.

On a crisp, golden September morning, I arrived in Mawphlang, a village sixteen miles from Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya in Northeastern India. I was there to visit the Mawphlang sacred grove, the most famous sacred grove in Meghalaya. 

A sacred grove is a tract of undisturbed, old-growth forest that has spiritual, religious, and cultural significance for the local community. Sacred groves are found across India and around the world. Although there are no official statistics, it is estimated that there are over 100,000 sacred forests in India. Spread over 76.8 hectares, the Mawphlang grove is divided into three parts, only one of which is open to visitors so as to minimize the impact of humans inside the grove. Currently, one can walk inside for 700-800 meters, which takes thirty to forty minutes.

My visit began in a meadow where wildflowers — yellow, white, fuschia, and violet — basked in the warm glow of the sun while a black cow grazed at a distance. Bashankupar Khonghat, a guide for the sacred grove, invited me to follow him across the meadow, where a small entrance in the dark foliage opened onto a straight path, laid with large gray stones. Dappled light illuminated the trees and the forest floor. Small yellow mushrooms jutted out of the earth near the base of a tree. The forest bore a distinct, earthy fragrance, and the air was cool and moist. The loud buzzing of cicadas formed the background score. “I learnt about the tradition of sacred forests from my parents,” Khonghat told me. 

Just inside the forest, Khonghat pointed to a short shrub with cylindrical buds composed of several green spheres. This was Daphne shillong Banerji, a plant endemic to Meghalaya. Meghalaya is a part of the Indo–Burma biodiversity hotspot, which makes it rich in endemic plant species. 

The Mawphlang sacred grove is categorized as a subtropical rainforest. It hosts 400–450 species of plants including rhododendron, oak, bayberry, and yew trees, ferns, mosses, and climbers. Along the path, Khonghat stopped at a hollow tree stump filled with dried stones from the Elaeocarpus ganitrus tree, commonly found in this grove. The dried stones of its fruit are used as rudraksha beads, which are strung and worn as a necklace and hold spiritual significance in Hinduism. We also saw Pinus khasia trees, an endemic pine species. The forest is home to more than 200 species of animals, including birds and squirrels, civets, rodents, snakes, jackals, monkeys, deer and clouded leopards.

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“In our tradition, sacred forests are religiously used [to perform rituals],” Khonghat explained to me. “The Mawphlang forest was used by the first clan of this kingdom, called the Blah clan,” Khonghat said. Mawphlang is home to indigenous Khasi people, who have their own religion known as Niam Khasi. Traditionally, the king and his associates were responsible for performing religious rites and rituals. In the 19th century, during the British colonial rule, Christian missionaries arrived in the region, and today 75 percent of the population in Meghalaya follows Christianity. However, there are still many people who practice Niam Khasi. “These days, only a few Khasi kingdoms practice these traditions,” Khonghat explained, “and the Mawphlang kingdom is one of them.” 

Passing several towering trees, we came upon a cluster of small monoliths — low slabs of moss-covered, slightly uneven sandstone — surrounded by decaying brown leaves and small remnants of volcanic rock. The short and upright monoliths are considered male, while the table-shaped ones are female. Historically, the king and his council prepared materials for rituals near these monoliths, which symbolize their ancestors.

“The grove is believed to be more than 800 years old,” said Craig Alan Lyngdoh, the chief of Mawphlang village. His family, which belongs to the Lyngdoh clan that ruled the village, has been caring for the grove for 200 years. Locals believe that visitors should only enter the forest if they have a purpose; according to Lyngdoh, people are allowed to take only drinking water or medicinal herbs from the forest, and they are not allowed to use any resources for profitable gains. Those who practice Niam Khasi believe that each part of the Mawphlang grove has a different rynkgkew or labasa, a guardian spirit that protects the forest from intruders. They believe that these spirits appear as either a clouded leopard (a good omen) or a snake (a bad omen).  

There is no local written history of this sacred grove, because Khasi culture relies on the oral tradition of storytelling. “We don't have special schools to learn about nature. Each family talks to their children about respecting trees and other living beings. This continues from one generation to another,” said Philarihun Lyngdoh Mawphlang, the only female guide working in the sacred grove. She learned to identify medicinal herbs and poisonous mushrooms from her grandmother. Although Khasi society is matrilineal, traditionally women were not included in the village councils and were not allowed to perform rituals within the forest. These practices continue today. 


Academics believe that the concept of sacred forests in India dates back to many thousands of years ago, to a pre-agrarian, hunter-gatherer era. In his book, How Much Should A Person Consume?, Indian historian Ramachandra Guha explains that India saw major deforestation after the arrival of the British colonizers, who built the vast railway network in India and cut down huge chunks of the forest to extract timber for railway sleepers. To curtail the forest rights practiced by rural communities, the historian wrote, the British drafted an act “to establish claims of the state to the forest land.” Forest-dependent indigenous communities, who practiced slash and burn cultivation, foraged for wild foods, and collected flowers and leaves to make a living, were hard-hit by this act, which (among other things) allowed the colonial administration’s Forest Department to fine indigenous people heavily if their cattle ventured into forest land, and forced foragers to get a license to harvest forest produce.

The sacred groves provide a host of ecosystem services that make life possible around them.

– BK Tiwari, former professor at the School of Environmental Sciences at North Eastern Hill University (NEHU)

This situation remained the same for decades after India’s independence, and although India eventually recognized the forest rights of indigenous communities by passing The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA) in 2006, implementation of this law remains weak.

But in Meghalaya, where there are an estimated 215 to 400 sacred forests, and where seventy-six percent of the geographical area is under forest cover, forest governance is different. The state falls under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, which covers tribal areas in four states and allows people in these areas to make their own laws on land and forests. “Here, 96 percent of the forest is managed by the community,” said BK Tiwari, former professor at the School of Environmental Sciences at North Eastern Hill University (NEHU), who has been researching sacred groves since 1990 and has co-authored a book on the subject. “This ownership can lie with a village, clan, or a family. Only three to four percent of the forests are managed by the government.”  The state of Meghalaya has also designated many sacred forests as Community Reserves under the 1972 Wildlife (Protection) Act. Still, some argue that India should implement a nationwide special law to protect its sacred groves.

“The sacred groves provide a host of ecosystem services that make life possible around them,” Tiwari said. Many rivers originate in sacred forests, providing water for drinking and agriculture for the villages downhill. These forests conserve plant biodiversity with their microbially rich soil and act as a habitat for pollinators like birds, who help plants reproduce. They are also a carbon sink, storing carbon dioxide in the vegetation and soil. And nowadays, Tiwari notes, some villages use sacred groves for ecotourism, which provides jobs and earns revenue.

Tambor Lyngdoh is credited with starting tourism in Mawphlang. A forest guide turned conservationist, he learned about the forest from his father (an herbal healer) and uncles. In 1996, he invited visitors to the village inside the sacred grove, where he told them stories of the forest. As secretary of Hima (a traditional governing body) from 1996 to 2011, he worked to develop sustainable tourism. Over the years, he has trained forty-two local young people to be forest guides.

But tourism brought unexpected consequences. “Sometimes people came to the forest and made fires inside,” said Tambor Lyngdoh. This is when he realized things had to be done differently. In 2011, he formed the Ka Synjuk Ki Hima Arliang Wah Umiam Mawphlang Welfare Society (also known as Synjuk), a federation of ten Khasi indigenous kingdoms and governments devoted to conserving forests and reversing degradation while creating sustainable livelihoods for indigenous residents. The Synjuk is a UN REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) project — REDD+ being a forest protection framework adopted by countries under the Paris Agreement, though not without controversy

“Khasi people like forests very much and want to conserve them, but many [people] are below the poverty line. There are certain times of the year when they are unemployed,” Tambor Lyngdoh said. Seasonal unemployment forces poor residents to seek sustenance from the forest,  and the Synjuk is using youth meetings and self-help groups to encourage alternative livelihoods in floriculture, mushroom cultivation, and pig breeding to reduce the locals’ dependence on forest produce. The Synjuk also helps families who cook with firewood to apply for a cooking gas connection. Their work covers an area of 23,500 hectares and involves 10,000 households across the state.

But there are challenges. “People don't want to shift to new agricultural techniques or food processing methods. They tend to go back to old practices, so we have to keep monitoring,” Tambor Lyngdoh said. The Synjuk also uses a team of 250 volunteers across the state to check their nearby forests daily for forest fires.


These sacred groves that help combat climate change are also suffering from its impacts. Although Meghalaya (which means “the abode of the clouds” in Sanskrit) happens to be one of the places with the highest rainfall in India, rain is becoming more uncertain in the state, with reportedly lower annual rainfall in 2023. “When I was small, we heard that there was non-stop rain for nine days and nine nights. Now the rain doesn't arrive when my grandma expects it,” said Philarihun Lyngdoh Mawphlang. The water level is also decreasing in most of the natural springs inside the forest, according to my guide, Khonghat. The delay in rainfall also impacts the growth of seasonal fungi like mushrooms, which now appear later than they used to. 

Meanwhile, the number of tourists visiting the grove has grown to 10,000 to 15,000 visitors annually. People entering the forest can damage plant life. Khonghat pointed to the bark of a rhododendron tree next to the pathway. The upper part of the bark was mossy, whereas the lower five feet of bark had no moss. “This shows that it has been regularly touched for many years, which affects the growth of the moss,” he said.To prevent further damage, the village council decided to close off access to  the longer trail inside the forest. “The forests are losing their serenity,” Professor Tiwari said. “Indiscriminate tourism is going to harm [them].” 

Tambor Lyngdoh believes that the biggest lesson he has learned from working for nearly three decades to conserve sacred groves is the importance of ensuring people’s participation. “When you want to conserve forests, you need to involve people. [Ordinary] people are wiser than officials, they are reading nature, not books. We have to teach kids [about the forest],” he said. Mawphlang’s council provides discounted tickets (for entry into the sacred forests) to school and college students, with the goal of passing on the message of stewardship to the new generation.

As we walked out of the forest, Khonghat shared a final observation on the future of the sacred grove. “We need to create a balance for both our economy and the preservation of our forest,” he said. “A time will come when we have to limit the number of visitors.”

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The South Portland, Maine retailer is part of the ‘refill revolution’ around the country. Read the story

A former oil drilling site, Banning Ranch is nearing transformation into a nature preserve. Read the story.

Kemp’s ridley sea turtles return to the ocean after being cold-stranded and undergoing specialized rehabilitation. Read the story.

As the Western United States and other arid climates around the world face increased wildfire activity, many civilians are forced to flee. Wildland firefighters run toward the flames. Read the story.

A new facility in Santa Barbara hopes to divert over 85% of the county’s organic waste. Is there still a place for community composting programs? Read the story.

How university students re-imagined parking spaces in the heart of downtown Toronto. Read the story.

What you didn’t know about ladybugs, butterflies, bees and hummingbirds, and how you can be a good global citizen by planting for them. Read the story.

The iconic park celebrates its 150th birthday this year with plans to protect it for another 150 years. Read the story.

An ambitious (and replicable) program in Vermont turns surplus food into delicious meals for the hungry, ensuring that nothing goes to waste. Read the story

Once considered unswimmable, the Willamette has found new life as a popular swimming and kayaking destination. Read the story.

 

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Vandana K
Vandana K
Vandana K is an independent journalist based in Delhi, India. She writes about the environment, climate and gender from an intersectional lens.
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